I would like here to offer some thoughts on Jesus, religion, and relationship because the topics seem to be brought up often as if in opposition.
But first, I would like to clarify an important principle which, if not understood, will lead to the confusion and incomprehension of all that follows.
We must define our terms: “A human is a 6’3” African American man that teaches science in Fresno, California.”
Of course, a human may be male, black, tall, a teacher, and reside in the Golden State. But these are not what he is. Man is a rational animal, created in the image and likeness of God. It is important, so important, not only in what follow, but in ALL THINGS that we learn to distinguish the accidental and the essential.
So what about Jesus and Religion?
If we think religion is about saying morning prayer, or keeping Sunday as a day of rest, or of listening to Gregorian Chant or Jars of Clay, then we are confusing the accidental with the essential. Religion is about knowing our place before God, and honoring the command of the great Teacher on religion who said to “render unto God the things that are God’s.”
So religion is not about the things we do, but about the service in Whom and for Whom we do them. We cannot see religion as the particulars, but as the essence of our relationship with God. Yes, religion, in its essence, is about our relationship with God. It is both personal and communal. We must not pretend to isolate religion from relationship. One without the other makes either an empty term. You do not have a true relationship with God if your religion is ABOUT the particulars, and you do not have a true relationship with God if you ignore the religious aspect that He, as Creator, put in you as man. Religion and relationship stand or fall together. “What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.”
Likewise, if you see the errors of those OF a religion as errors of Religion itself, you again confuse the accidental and the essential. One may say “I despise religion because by it, people have gone to war.” Well, people went to war, not religion. The problem with this line of thinking is that it does not lead to a relationship with God, it leads to a denial of him. Today, it is more popular to say “Science flies you to the moon, and religion flies you into buildings.” But that is not what “religion” does; that is what a false zeal in a false religion does, and “Without knowledge, even zeal is not good” (Proverbs 19: 2).
Subjectively, religion is the virtue by which man renders to God what is due to Him, which, of course, is everything. Strictly speaking, we can never “repay” God. Still, it is that same wise Teacher about that tells us “to render unto God,” and so, we religiously do as He tells us (let us not forget that there is real meaning to our current fight for freedom of religion, and it is rightly termed this, rather than “freedom of relationship”, for the government can make a claim that it already allows freedom of “relationship,” yet we all know that is not enough).
But objectively, religion is those things that we believe, and rather, the source of those things. If that is Jesus, then it cannot also be this particular Rite, or that particular prayer or set of prayers, or this or that small group or even Institutional Church. All those things are means, some of them even sacred, but they are not the immediate content of faith.
My point in all this is that we should all reflect and discern whether or not we are guilty of either misunderstanding religion and relationship. If our “relationship” with our Creator denies the virtue of religion that says “render unto God the things that are God’s”, our relationship is empty and unfounded. Likewise, if our “religion” consists in the actions, liturgical, moral, and otherwise, as if they were the end and not the means, then our religion is empty and unfounded.
Let us remember that if we truly “have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations” then we will not live a religion without relationship, nor pretend to have a relationship separated from religion.
Do not presume to say to yourself we have Abraham (or the Catholic Church) as our father, for “from these very stones God could raise up” such. The means will not bring your salvation. But likewise, do not neglect religion, which is, again, to “render unto God,” for if we neglect it, we will be judged as such: “Truly, I say to you, ‘as you did it not to the least of these, you did it not to me.’ And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
As another wise teacher has written “neither circumcision or uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love” and “if I have all faith so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”
On the subject of relationship and religion, let us ask the wisest of all Teachers:
Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.
Let us never separate religion and relationship, nor pretend to live one without the other. The two are “one flesh.”